Shared information bias is the tendency of groups to spend time and energy discussing information that most group members already know. Consequently they have less time and energy to devote to information that only a few members know. [Stasser 1985] [Van Swol 2007] [Forsyth 2010] This bias in the way the group invests its resources leads to misalignment between reality and the group's perceptions, and eventually to bad decisions.
For example, in discussing possible solutions to a technical problem, the portion of the discussion devoted to information that most group members already know will tend to be disproportionately large, in terms of importance, compared to the portion of the discussion regarding technical subtleties known only to the few group members with relevant expertise. In part, this happens because the number of people who are familiar with the commonly shared information is greater than the number of people who are familiar with the less commonly shared information. But research suggests that the shared information bias is greater than mere numbers would predict.
Although bad decisions are the most commonly cited effect of shared information bias, the damage it causes transcends the substance of the immediate decision at hand. That's why it's important to consider other effects of the bias, to motivate groups to address shared information bias with the attention it deserves.
Here, in Part I of this exploration, are four ways shared information bias harms group processes.
- Members experience a false sense of comfort and well being
- Repeated Shared information bias leads to
misalignment between reality and
the group's perceptions, and
eventually to bad decisionsexperiences of discussions that fail to challenge group members' beliefs and preconceptions can enhance their sense of comfort and well being, however false it might be. This misapprehension of the group's actual state can expose it to great risk of chaos if it encounters a situation to which it has been rendered vulnerable by this false sense of security.
- Enhanced likelihood of groupthink
- Groupthink is a group-psychological dynamic that causes the group to converge on an outcome not on the basis of the tenets to which the group claims it subscribes, but instead as a means of achieving group harmony and conformity. The probability of an irrational and dysfunctional outcome is thus elevated. When groupthink is in effect, the group tries to minimize conflict and reach consensus, even at the cost of abandoning critical thinking, suppressing alternative viewpoints, and preventing access to external influence. Shared information bias thus facilitates groupthink by providing a false sense of comfort and well being and a variety of contributions that are consistent with the views and preconceptions of group members. For more about groupthink, see "Design Errors and Groupthink," Point Lookout for April 16, 2014.
- Biased assessments of importance
- In groups, especially in real or virtual meetings, a commonly used heuristic for assessing the importance of an idea or insight is group members' sense of the number of times it arises in discussion. People don't actually count occurrences; a subjective sense seems to be sufficient. If the group is experiencing a shared information bias, that bias skews the subjective sense of the frequency of mentions of ideas. The group members then tend to assess the importance of frequently cited ideas as greater than they might actually be. And that can skew the discussion away from directions that might reveal insights and perspective far more important than anything discussed so far.
- Increased persistence of wrong beliefs
- If someone withholds an incorrect opinion, misinformation, or misapprehension, that they themselves have accepted, it's less likely to be refuted by another group member who knows that the withheld contribution is incorrect, misinformed, or confused, but who doesn't know that any group members subscribe to it. And the longer the confusion remains in the mind of the holder, the longer it's available in that person's mind to discredit truthful beliefs and accurate perceptions.
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More articles on Cognitive Biases at Work:
- Managing Hindsight Bias Risk
- Performance appraisal practices and project retrospectives both rely on evaluating performance after
outcomes are known. Unfortunately, a well-known bias — hindsight bias — can limit the effectiveness
of many organizational processes, including both performance appraisal and project retrospectives.
- Wishful Significance: II
- When we're beset by seemingly unresolvable problems, we sometimes conclude that "wishful thinking"
was the cause. Wishful thinking can result from errors in assessing the significance of our observations.
Here's a second group of causes of erroneous assessment of significance.
- Cognitive Biases at Work
- Cognitive biases can lead us to misunderstand situations, overlook options, and make decisions we regret.
The patterns of thinking that lead to cognitive biases provide speed and economy advantages, but we
must manage the risks that come along with them.
- Clouted Thinking
- When we say that people have "clout" we mean that they have more organizational power or social
influence than most others do. But when people with clout try to use it in realms beyond those in which
they've earned it, trouble looms.
- Lessons Not Learned: II
- The planning fallacy is a cognitive bias that causes us to underestimate the cost and effort involved
in projects large and small. Efforts to limit its effects are more effective when they're guided by
interactions with other cognitive biases.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 13: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: I
- To take the risks that learning and practicing new ways require, we all need a sense that trial-and-error approaches are safe. Organizations seeking to improve processes would do well to begin by assessing their level of psychological safety. Available here and by RSS on December 13.
- And on December 20: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: II
- When we begin using new tools or processes, we make mistakes. Practice is the cure, but practice can be scary if the grace period for early mistakes is too short. For teams adopting new methods, psychological safety is a fundamental component of success. Available here and by RSS on December 20.
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